Fiorina’s Surge Shows a Way Forward for Clinton

While many political prognosticators continued to underestimate Donald Trump after the second GOP debate, one thing was clear to everyone: Carly Fiorina delivered a deeply impressive performance. It was only superficially impressive, of course: almost everything she said during the debate was false. But then again, that could be said for almost every GOP candidate on stage. But especially in debates and even more broadly on campaigns, it matters far less what you say than how you say it and the attitude and confidence a candidate projects. In those terms, Fiorina was a smashing success, following up on an equally impressive performance in the first undercard debate. She managed look tougher and bigger than even Trump, showing both resolve and passion for her issues–even if they did center around potentially starting World War III, and speaking forcefully about videos she never actually watched,

She has been rewarded in turn by a lead in New Hampshire: the first candidate to break through against Trump.

There is a small impact here on the Democratic race as well. Clinton’s critics, even well-meaning ones, point out that as a matter of demeanor she often comes across as less than warm and genuine. Her own campaign has acknowledged this (albeit somewhat late), and are now engaged in a campaign to show her personality and warmth to the public.

Clinton defenders frequently dismiss such criticism as pure sexism. They argue that women candidates are subject to this sort of scrutiny in a way that men are not, and that judgments should only be made of candidates’ records and policy statements, not of more superficial characteristics. The latter point is easily dismissable: while it might be nice to live in a world where voters make purely rational decisions based on policy platforms, that’s not how voting booth decisions are made in the real world, and it would be a disservice to the public for the political press to simply ignore issues of candidate demeanor.

On the former point, it is frequently noted that male candidates are also subjected to critiques of their demeanors. For instance, Ted Cruz is frequently mocked as an Elmer Gantry-style salesman, Donald Trump is lambasted as a bully with bad hair, Jeb Bush is viewed as a country club wimp, etc. But also, it’s notable that other female candidates besides Clinton are not typically tarred with the same brush. The critiques that are often made of Clinton are not made of, say, Elizabeth Warren or Joni Ernst.

Nor are they now being made of Carly Fiorina. Fiorina barely cracked a smile from the stage, but she didn’t need to. She showed toughness in a variety of ways by interrupting anyone she cared to, and letting silence speak for her in her most memorable put down of Trump. Her voice seemed to waver and crack with passion when talking about the Planned Parenthood videos (that she didn’t watch and lied about.) Outside of the misogynist Donald Trump’s own accusations, Fiorina is not being subjected to the same personal attacks that Clinton is.

As the Clinton camp works to reverse her downward spiral, there’s something they can learn from Fiorina’s success. It’s not really about what you say or even whether it’s truthful. It’s about how you say it and whether you can communicate passionate intensity and toughness.

I think Clinton can do a better job of that. But her campaign has to realize its an issue that needs addressing, and her defenders would do well not to simply dismiss all such critiques as sexism.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.